Sister Chân Thao Nghiêm

My beloved younger siblings,

It has been two years since I left Plum Village, France for Dieu Tram Nunnery, Vietnam. How time flies! So much has happened in the world and in the sangha, for you and for me. Sometimes in my dreams or when we sit around and share stories, many memories return to me. You know what the sisters are like–we are easily carried away by stories, one after another. They contain anecdotes about Thay, about brotherhood and sisterhood, and all of the joyful times.

Buddha Hall, New Hamlet

The walking meditation paths

Being far away from Plum Village, I often remember and dream about the paths I have walked on. Walking them many times, they have gradually become well worn even in my mind. The ones I walked upon with a deeper awareness are more “worn” and feel dearer to me when I recall them. Those are the paths we often use during the day, especially the walking meditation paths.

How beautiful the walking meditation paths are in the three hamlets! I have walked them countless times, and yet each time, I still found them so lovely. There is the path around the crescent-moon shaped lotus pond, or the paths winding through the plum trees to ascend the plum hill in New Hamlet. There is the path beneath the “poplar cathedral” leading to the woods where one finds the creek in Lower Hamlet. Then there is the path that takes us through the oak forest and down to the sixteen Buddha statues in Upper Hamlet. Of course, it is impossible not to mention the legendary pine forest path that Thay has often spoken of.

There are many more paths that are incredibly delightful. Beautiful while we stroll freely and alone in our own hamlet, and even more beautiful when we go for walking meditation with our sisters and brothers. The images of the sangha walking quietly and peacefully are so alive and dear to me. In the days just before leaving France, I was very present whenever we went for walking meditation on those paths. I walked with reverence, expressing my gratitude to them. Sometimes I placed my hand on a plum tree or a pine tree to feel it, and to say “goodbye.”

On the continuing journey, there will be new paths that become dear, where we will have new experiences that will stay within our hearts.

Buddha Hall

There is a sacred space in New Hamlet that I miss very much, and that is the Buddha Hall. We often called it the “Purple Hall” because in the past, the carpet there was purple (the signature colour of New Hamlet), which was chosen by Thay. Purple represents the land of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The day I arrived in Plum Village, the first thing I did was to go to the Buddha Hall and touch the earth in front of the Buddha. Entering the hall, I discovered that the floor was lined with dark purple carpet. At the end of the hall was a Buddha statue, light pink in colour, sitting very beautifully and serenely in a natural stone enclave. Thay had written a pair of parallel verses for the Buddha Hall:

Trên đài sen trắng Như Lai hiện
Giữa rừng tre tím Quán Âm ngồi

On a white lotus throne, the Tathagata appears.
In the midst of the violet bamboo forest, Avalokiteshvara dwells.Further reading:

Reading it, you will immediately feel the essence of the place in which you are standing.

Stepping into the Buddha Hall, I always had a sense of serenity and of being myself. Everything in the hall is always arranged beautifully and neatly. I loved the paintings of plum blossoms, the calligraphies, and the cartwheel “chandelier” in the centre of the hall. The Buddha hall is a dignified space and carpeted, so everyone was carefully reminded to not eat or drink or make noise there, so the space could remain clean and tranquil.

One time, a plastic human skeleton was placed in a corner of the Buddha Hall (as an aid for the sangha to contemplate our mortality and the impermanence of life). It was also once used as a model to show the correct posture for sitting meditation. Whenever I went to practise touching the earth alone and saw the skeleton or knew that it was behind me, I thought, Oh dear, why am I so scared? After a while, the skeleton became damaged and twisted–one leg going one way and one hand going another, it was rather falling apart, so we invited it to “continue on its journey.”

The day New Hamlet was flooded, muddy water soaked the entire Buddha Hall floor and the carpet could not be rescued; we had to let it go. Having lived with it day and night for so many years, everyone thought it was a great pity and missed the purple carpet. Fortunately we found another purple coloured material to line the floor and the signature colour of the hall was preserved.

What I love the most is the image of everyone practising together in the Buddha Hall. Once in a while I could not be at a practice session with the sangha due to work. As I walked past and looked into the hall, I could see the sangha sitting and chanting with such beauty and power! Early in the morning and after the evening session, the sisters were often there for their personal practice. Anyone would be moved by those images. I may not have been the one who was confiding in the Buddha, or bowing down to be in touch with Mother Earth, or doing slow walking meditation with ease; but even just looking in, I benefited from their energy of peace and I could also very naturally let go of difficulties in my heart and be happy.

The Hermitage

Thay’s house. Naturally the Hermitage became sacred. It is a place reserved for the monastic sangha and whenever we come there, we feel its warm embrace.

Everyone loved the Winter Rains’ Retreat because we could come to the Hermitage once a week for Monastic Day. In the earlier years when there were fewer people in the sangha, we all sat spaciously in the small meditation hall upstairs. Thay likened that small hall to the womb of Queen Maya–able to hold however many people there were.

Later on Monastic Days, whoever arrived early could sit close to the back and those arriving late had to sit right up at the front, squeezing tightly to have enough room. Thay had to remind us every time, “Move inside, don’t sit where you are blocking the way.” There were a few tiny windows in the meditation hall, usually half ajar to let in some air. Whoever mistakenly sat near them would get cold, while the rest of us were all hot with flushed cheeks. There was heating in the hall. Thay turned it on the night before to prepare a warm hall for his monastic children.

After a few years the sangha grew, so we needed to move to the two rooms downstairs. Thay sat in the inner room and there had to be a projector in the outer room to watch his talk. Many times when Thay asked about a hot topic, the brothers and sisters in the outer room were so busy discussing it that we forgot to quiet down for Thay’s talk. So from time to time Thay asked, “The ‘rowdy group’ out there, are you listening?”

The Dharma talks on Monastic Days were often very closely related to what was happening in the sangha. We all listened attentively and felt as if Thay was giving us each a private teaching. As sangha issues were brought up and Thay shared his insights on how to resolve them, we often asked each other, “How did Thay know about that?”

The Hermitage is small, but large enough for Thay to lead the sangha for walking meditation. Thay led us around the garden, along the creek, (which is called Phương Khê or “Fragrant Creek"), towards the rows of poplar trees, then turning back until we arrived at the three cypress trees. On those days, Thay and his disciples often sat around a bonfire outside. The brothers always brought along guitars to play and sing meditation songs. Thay liked to sit and listen to his monastic children sing, and watch us having fun and laughing. We, the young sisters at the time, rarely sat near the bonfire. Instead we liked to hide near the bamboo grove to enjoy the dishes we missed out on at lunch or run around and play games.

Chanting practice at the Hermitage, 2014

Lunchtime was the most fun. The line was really long because there were only two serving tables. Whoever did not have responsibilities tried their best to line up first. Come lunchtime, everyone was lined up neatly. No one left the line because they would lose their spot right away. When the cooking team came carrying the food and asked for help to invite the bell, everyone would politely decline, no one was willing to do it. Tough isn’t it? So many funny stories around the serving table at the Hermitage! On rainy days when there wasn’t enough space, we all squeezed into the house to eat. Oh it was so crowded, but everyone was happy and enjoyed the Monastic Days. Isn’t that wonderful?

During the big retreats, going to the Hermitage was a chance for teacher and disciples to be present for each other and to recharge our energy. We rekindled the awareness that we are very fortunate to have many opportunities to practise and to help others. Thay was always by our side, like a father, attentive to each child, not leaving anyone out. You, I, and all the other brothers and sisters have carried that love within us and still do so now.

“Teacher’s Love” Meditation Hall

A row of old stone buildings (at the southern corner of the grounds) was already at the Hermitage when Thay moved there. They can be seen in the early photos of the Hermitage that Thay has hung in his library. The buildings were badly damaged and unusable, so no one paid attention to them. For unknown reasons, Thay wished to repair them. After asking the attendants to push his wheelchair there and checking it for himself, Thay started to make signals for the attendants to clean out the abandoned buildings. First, two attendants followed; then the rest of the attendant group was called to help and in the end, the whole community joined in with the cleaning. Thay invited Brother Phap Dung to draft the architectural designs. Thay was the one who came up with the ideas, supervised, and oversaw the whole project. When construction workers started to work on the building, Thay came to visit almost every day and was very excited about the project.

Before the building works were completed, Thay went to Thailand and then returned to Vietnam. Thay was the project initiator–the building and completion were up to his monastic children. Finally, the new meditation hall was “inaugurated.” It looked very elegant and warm. At Tu Hieu Root Temple in Vietnam, the attendants received photos of the sangha’s activities in the new hall and showed them to Thay. It is only now that I understand Thay’s wish for the project. There is nothing better than offering a welcoming space for Thay’s monastic children to practise and be present for each other. I thought “Teacher’s Love” is really a suitable name for the meditation hall. Sitting inside, for sure everyone would think of and feel Thay’s love.

Popcorn Day

Speaking of the Hermitage and Thay, I recall a very memorable, very special day–Popcorn Day.

It was during the early days of Thay’s illness. The sangha had not been with Thay for quite a while because he was resting and recuperating at the Hermitage. The sangha missed Thay and Thay also thought of the sangha. Thay did not want the sangha to worry for him. He had already wanted to have a Monastic Day before that so the sangha could meet him at the Hermitage and feel peace of mind. He also wanted to hear the community chant the new Sutra of the Insight That Brings Us to the Other Shore, which Br. Phap Linh had just set to music.

Thay made very careful arrangements to prepare for the day. I do not know how Thay thought of it, but one day, he suggested we buy a popcorn machine for him. Sr. Chan Khong and the attending brothers and sisters were all very surprised when we heard Thay’s suggestion. None of us had ever imagined what it would be like to have a popcorn machine in a monastery. It must be very difficult to find, what would we buy and where would we put it? Thay said, “Go ahead, buy it for Thay. I will pay for it. I have some money from selling calligraphies.” That was enough for us to know that Thay really liked the idea, so Sr. Dinh Nghiem searched online and found a real popcorn machine. It was red, not too big, and had wheels to cart it along.

The day the machine was delivered, teacher and disciples eagerly opened it to check it out. After assembling it, we discovered that one side of the glass had broken in transit; the attendants used a plastic sheet to cover it temporarily. Now that the machine was there, Thay said, “Now we go online to learn how to make popcorn.”

Br. Phap Huu, Sr. Nho Nghiem, Br. Phap Ao, Br. Phap Nguyen, and I were members of the popcorn testing committee. The customers were Thay, Sr. Chan Khong, and Sr. Dinh Nghiem. The moment we put the oil and corn kernels in to try it out and then waited to see if it would work was really exciting. Then the corn popped and came bursting out of the little pot inside the machine. Oh, it was so much fun! Thay laughed, the sisters cheered, and the four of us who had made the popcorn jumped up and down with joy. Thay was offered the first bowl of popcorn and we were all excited to try it. Thay even suggested doing some research to see if we could add a little salt and caramel to the popcorn to have more flavour. So the attendants busily popped batch after batch to measure the right quantities and work out the timing. During those days we ate popcorn to our hearts’ content and even had to send some to the New Hamlet for help.

A few days later, Thay wrote a letter inviting the sangha to come for a Monastic Day and to eat popcorn. Meanwhile, Thay reminded the attendants to bring out the popcorn machine each day and practise using it so we could demonstrate it smoothly in front of the sangha.

Several days before the appointed day, Thay had to go to the hospital for a health check. When the doctors advised him to stay longer, Thay said, “I cannot. I have an appointment for popcorn day with my students.” The attendants had to beg Thay to stay and contacted the sangha to postpone the Monastic Day so that Thay could take care of his health in peace.

Then came the day the sangha gathered. Everyone was excited. The attendants had been preparing the popcorn cart, a stove to caramelize sugar, a little salt, and a bucket to contain the final product since noon. We were all worried that as the community was big we would not be able to make enough in time. Thay had arranged the right moment to bring out the popcorn cart for maximum effect.

I still remember how we made the popcorn in a room at the back of the Hermitage where we could look out towards the three cypress trees, (Thay often called them the “Three elder brothers of the sangha”). The sangha had gathered to chant the Sutra of the Insight That Brings Us to the Other Shore. It sounded very powerful and wonderful. Then Br. Phap Ao pushed Thay in his wheelchair to go out and listen to the sangha chanting. Looking from the inside, I could see a few brothers and sisters who could not chant and just stood watching. A few others were standing and hiding behind others … crying.

After an introduction, Thay signaled for us to bring out the machine and to make popcorn for the sangha to see. Everyone got to eat some popcorn. It was a gift from Thay, realized by the attendants. Thay was so happy to see the sangha and the sangha was happy and moved to see Thay. Whether the popcorn was delicious or not was not important. The most precious thing was that everyone had received our teacher’s love.

Later the popcorn maker was moved to the New Hamlet and once in a while we brought it out to make popcorn for the sangha. Everyone enjoyed it and thought of that memorable day.

Sr. Thao Nghiem operating the popcorn machine

My dear younger siblings, I can go on endlessly telling old stories! I am sure Plum Village has changed and is changing a lot. When I left New Hamlet, the main building was still being repaired. When I have the chance to come back, I may not even recognise it. That said, no matter how things change, Plum Village is still nestled in that picturesque countryside, tranquil and far away from hustle and bustle, still simple with a welcoming and lively atmosphere.

While at the Root Temple, myself and the other sisters and brothers often share stories with each other–so many stories of Thay, of Plum Village, and of the different centres. Thay’s hut here is peaceful but also filled with the sound of our stories and laughter. We still have Thay in us, we can always return to the embrace of the sangha, and have the time to roam with joy. What more do we hope for?

I wish for you, my dear younger siblings, to fully enjoy the happy days, to smile with the difficulties that are there, and to be a beautiful continuation of Thay and Plum Village. I am also doing just that.

With much love,
Sr. Thao Nghiem